Merle Lipton obituary

Other lives: Historian who studied the various complex forces that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa

My friend Merle Lipton, who has died aged 85, was a historian, political analyst and doughty liberal with an activist bent, who constantly challenged conventional wisdom on South Africa.

She oversaw vigorous debate in academia both in Britain and South Africa for more than six decades, first from Chatham House (1965-2012) and later at King’s College London (2012-22), where she was a visiting fellow with the Africa research group. Her primary goal was the search for “historical truth”, and yet she managed to act as an unlikely bridge between neo-Marxists and liberals often at odds regarding their role in the demise of apartheid.

She found that complex and contradictory forces led to the end of apartheid and that capital adapted as it shifted its dependence from manual to skilled labour. In 1985 Merle authored the seminal work Capitalism and Apartheid, which argued for the growing interdependence of multi-racialism and capitalism, rather than the allegedly Marxist view that it was apartheid and capitalism that were interdependent.

The daughter of Fay (nee Gelb) and Charles Babrow, who ran a pharmacy business, Merle was born in Bloemfontein. Her parents later moved to Cape Town and Merle went on to read history at the University of Cape Town. She joined the Liberal party, which in 1968 disbanded rather than become a whites-only party under laws that criminalised multi-racial political parties.

But Merle had already fled South Africa in 1961 following the enactment of rigid segregation laws at every level of the education system. Not being able to teach teenage black students in the evenings was the final straw.

After her marriage in 1966 to the British development economist Michael Lipton, Merle set about her studies at Oxford University and organising meetings at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where she became a research fellow in the Africa programme.

She and Michael collaborated on articles, books and conferences on agriculture, land and the rights of rural black people – and economic advantages of small-scale farming - in a system where the post-apartheid authorities lent heavily towards the powers of tribal leaders.

They also shared a common interest in art and classical music, on which they would binge between long walks during their annual visits to Elmau Castle in Bavaria.

In her later years, Merle became increasingly preoccupied with the conviction that South Africa’s post-apartheid problems were less the result of corruption and incompetence and more the result of the failure to tax the rich to fund economic development for the poor and unemployed – especially in the rural areas.

Merle had recently been putting the finishing touches to a new, as yet unpublished work about a theme that occupied her throughout her life. Entitled The Interaction Between South Africa’s Domestic and Foreign Policy, her last book sought the historical truth about the forces leading to South Africa’s dramatic transition from apartheid to democracy.

Merle is survived by Michael, and their son, Emanuel, and grandson, Joshua, and by her sister, Audrey.


John Battersby

The GuardianTramp

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